Saudi Arabia has formally asked Fifa to consider staging the World Cups for men and women every two years instead of four. The proposal “requesting a feasibility study to be carried out on the impact” of playing both tournaments more frequently will be put to the Fifa annual meeting of 211 member federations which is being held remotely today.
While Fifa president Gianni Infantino has previously expressed support for staging the Women’s World Cup every two years, it is hard to see a similar suggestion for the men’s tournament gaining much traction because European federations feel the global football calendar is already congested.
Infantino has strong relations with Saudi officials, but he was criticised by human rights groups earlier this year for appearing in what they described as promotional videos for the Saudi government.
For a country that only launched its first Women’s Football League last November and still doesn’t have a national women team, the Saudi proposal highlights the kingdom’s growing ambition to be a major player in world sports. These ambitions are not limited to football.
Saudi Arabia is set to host a boxing clash for the undisputed heavyweight championship on August 14th between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua after the two sides agreed to a deal for the landmark fight.
This has been expected for a while, but Fury finally confirmed it a few days ago when he posted on Twitter that he has received assurances from Prince Khaled bin Abdulaziz bin Fahad, chairman of the Saudi company that will organise the event, that the match will take place in Jeddah this summer.
“I just got off the phone with Prince Khaled of Saudi Arabia. He told me this fight is 100% on August 14, 2021 summertime,” Fury said in a video tweet he posted Sunday. “All eyes in the world will be on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I cannot wait, repeat, cannot wait, to smash Anthony Joshua on the biggest stage of all time. This is going to be the biggest sporting event ever to grace the planet Earth.”
ESPN reported that Saudi Arabia is paying a $150m fee to secure rights to the event, more than double what the kingdom paid in 2019 to stage the fight between Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr in Diriyah, the ancestral home of the royal family in northwestern Riyadh.
“It’s the same people that we did the deal with Andy Ruiz [rematch]. That event was spectacular,” promoter Eddie Hearn told Sky Sports. “As partners, they were fantastic as well. We’re very comfortable. Anthony is very comfortable, he knows those people. They’ve delivered on every one of their promises last time. We’re ready to go.”
However, the fight’s hefty price tag is likely to make at least some people uncomfortable, renew accusations of “sportswashing” and intensify scrutiny of Saudi attempts to host more major events. “From boxing to football and grand prix, Saudi Arabia is sinking vast sums into sport as part of a strategy to ‘rebrand’ the country,” Amnesty International’s Felix Jakens told the Guardian.
The kingdom is reportedly backing a new “Super Golf League” and hoping to entice top players with reward packages of up to $100m to join the breakaway competition. The world’s best golfers have been warned they face the risk of a career ban from the PGA Tour if they agree to join the Saudi-backed tournament, which is said to be modelled after the failed European Super League.
Former world number one golfer Rory McIlroy has come out against the proposal. “You go back to what happened in Europe with the European Super League in football,” he said. “People can see it for what it is, a money grab, which is fine if what you’re playing golf for is to make as much money as possible.”
While Saudi Arabia has used its financial firepower to win rights to host major events such as the Rally Dakar, which is set to return to the kingdom early next year, breaking into European football circles has proved more challenging.
An attempt led by the Public Investment Fund to acquire Newcastle United football club was withdrawn after facing resistance from other top clubs. Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, who is desperate to sell, is now taking legal action against the English Premier League after it refused to sanction the £300m million takeover.
PIF boosts stake in video-game makers
Speaking of the PIF, the sovereign wealth fund has recently raised its holdings of US stocks by about a fifth to $15.4 bn in the first quarter of 2021 from nearly $12.8 bn at the end of 2020.
Latest data from regulatory filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission show that the PIF is doubling down on its investments in video-game makers: it increased its exposure to Activision Blizzard from $1.4 bn to $3.1 bn, and upped its stake in Electronic Arts from $1.1 bn to $1.9 bn.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who chairs the PIF, is an avid fan of video games, particularly “Call of Duty,” Activision’s best-selling franchise, according to Bloomberg.
Rachna Uppal, director of research at Azure Strategy, told Reuters that the PIF is continuing its opportunistic approach of seeking to buy stocks at lower prices that began when the pandemic hit the markets last year.
“In line with domestic efforts to achieve the objectives of Vision 2030, the Saudis also appear to be favouring investments into sectors such as technology, mobility, and especially future mobility, tourism and entertainment,” she added.